De­nis O’Sul­li­van came to be re­garded as the world’s fore­most author­ity on Ir­ish mu­sic

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - ARMINTA WAL­LACE

In Septem­ber 1898, the Sk­ib­bereen Ea­gle news­pa­per ran a fa­mous editorial that de­clared: “We will still keep our eye on the Em­peror of Rus­sia and on all such despotic en­e­mies, whether at home or abroad, of hu­man pro­gres­sion and man’s nat­u­ral rights . . .”

More than a cen­tury later this is still one of Sk­ib­bereen’s most cel­e­brated in­ter­na­tional con­nec­tions. But while the pa­per had its dis­ap­prov­ing eye on the shenani­gans of the Tsar Ni­cholas II, oth­ers in the west Co Cork town were look­ing in a more west­erly di­rec­tion – to San Fran­cisco, where a young operatic bari­tone with roots in Sk­ib­bereen was mak­ing his name in the high­est mu­si­cal cir­cles.

Philip O’Re­gan has writ­ten to tell us about De­nis O’Sul­li­van, bet­ter known around Sk­ib­bereen as Singing Sul­li­van. He was born in San Fran­cisco in 1868; his fa­ther, Cor­nelius O’Sul­li­van, em­i­grated to the United States in 1845, on the eve of the Famine.

Cor­nelius has an operatic life story of his own. When he ar­rived in the US he worked in a cot­ton bro­ker’s of­fice, in New Or­leans, but was soon se­duced by the siren song of the Cal­i­for­nia gold rush. He set off for Panama, crossed the isth­mus and ar­rived in San Fran­cisco in the au­tumn of 1849.

An ar­ti­cle in the Gazette in Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia, takes up the tale: “O’Sul­li­van had only $2.50 when he reached Cal­i­for­nia. For $1.50 he was able to get a bunk for the night on the old sail­ing ship Niantic. His last dol­lar he spent on a cup of cof­fee and a piece of pie.”

With two fel­low Ir­ish­men Cor­nelius O’Sul­li­van worked for sev­eral months on a claim that was ex­pected to yield a for­tune, only to be dis­ap­pointed. When O’Sul­li­van col­lapsed from scurvy, his com­pan­ions left him what­ever mea­gre pro­vi­sions they had and set out on foot for Sacra­mento.

Pre­pared to shoot

Shortly af­ter­wards, the “Robin Hood” of the gold rush, the Mex­i­can out­law Joaquin Mur­ri­eta, came upon the in­jured man and pre­pared to shoot him. Then he re­alised O’Sul­li­van was prob­a­bly dy­ing any­how – and de­cided not to waste a bul­let.

Within a week, O’Sul­li­van’s com­pan­ions re­turned with food and medicine. Re­stored to health, Cor­nelius opened a gen­eral store, which be­came a great suc­cess. In 1854, he mar­ried a Sk­ib­bereen girl, Mary Ann Sul­li­van, whose un­cle owned a cot­ton gin in Louisiana. They had two chil­dren, De­nis and John; John was also a fine per­former, al­though not as suc­cess­ful as his brother.

Philip O’Re­gan writes: “Like his fa­ther be­fore him, De­nis O’Sul­li­van was very gen­er­ous to Sk­ib­bereen. At the height of his career, when he was fill­ing many of the most fa­mous Grand Old Opera houses and the­atres in Bri­tain and Amer­ica, he still found time to make his way to Sk­ib­bereen. For five con­sec­u­tive years, the fa­mous bari­tone and ac­tor made his way ‘home’ and gave recitals at the town hall, with the en­tire pro­ceeds go­ing to the lo­cal branch of the St Vin­cent de Paul so­ci­ety.”

Af­ter a hugely suc­cess­ful se­ries of con­certs in Lon­don in 1901, the Lon­don Times pro­nounced O’Sul­li­van to be “one of the il­lus­tri­ous singers of the world”. He was stricken with ap­pen­dici­tis while fill­ing an en­gage­ment in Ohio in 1908. He col­lapsed af­ter the per­for­mance and died that night, at the early age of 39.

De­nis O’Sul­li­van was re­garded as the fore­most author­ity on Ir­ish mu­sic in the world. He was a Feis Ceoil ad­ju­di­ca­tor, vo­cal­ist, del­e­gate and speaker to the Pan-Celtic Congress in Dublin, and was a del­e­gate to the Ir­ish na­tional con­ven­tion in 1907. At the Feis Ceoil com­pe­ti­tion ev­ery year, one of the most cov­eted prizes is the De­nis O’Sul­li­van medal, which is awarded “for the best ren­der­ing of two Ir­ish songs of con­trast­ing char­ac­ter in English or Gaelic, an­cient or mod­ern, orig­i­nal or ar­ranged, pro­vided the spirit and form are Ir­ish”.

“I won­der are there any rel­a­tives of the fa­mous ‘Singing Sul­li­vans’ still liv­ing in this area?” Philip O’Re­gan asks. “I’d love to know.”

If you know of an Ir­ish con­nec­tion that would in­ter­est read­ers of this col­umn, please email awal­lace@irish­times.com with details of the story, as well as your contact address.

Cel­e­brated bari­tone De­nis O’Sul­li­van, in whose mem­ory the Feis Ceoil awards a medal each year

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